Pro bono work hard to find, but local lawyers are urged to offer it

If you need a lawyer because your husband beats you, or you’re a fixed-income elderly person and fear you’ve been swindled, or you just plain want to have your day in court, it’s a tough road if you don’t have a lot of money.

“It’s a huge problem,” Neil Tardiff says about the lack of equal access to attorneys. “It’s mind-boggling.”

And it’s only grown worse as a result of the faltering economy, he added.

Tardiff is president of the San Luis Obispo County Bar Association, which last January set up a hotline that refers people who need free legal help to attorneys.

The association also is encouraging its members to take up the flag being waved by Chief Justice Ronald George of the California Supreme Court, who has asked California attorneys to do at least 50 hours of pro bono publico work a year.

Pro bono publico, in non-Latin, layman’s terms, means “for the public good.” Local attorney Steve Chanley, who donates time for legal advice, says, “For some of us, pro bono work may be the only avenue available to attempt to achieve the ideals of justice and civic service we carried with us in law school, but can’t necessarily further in our normal law practices.”

“I think few lawyers do it out of a pure sense of obligation, though some might. It’s usually a matter of being personally moved to action,” Chanley wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune.

The Board of Supervisors honored the county bar association Tuesday for undertaking pro bono work.

Those attorneys who participate have “donate(d) thousands of hours … to help address the huge unmet needs for legal assistance to our county’s poor,” the resolution reads.

Tardiff told them that county attorneys have given 3,000 hours of their time, and interns from Cal Poly have processed 5,000 phone calls since January.

Tardiff told The Tribune that about 10 percent of the county’s 800 attorneys do some pro bono work “of a significant nature.”The board’s resolution of thanks cites some startling statistics.

Despite the bar association’s efforts, “80 percent of the legal needs of the poor remain unmet in critical areas such as domestic violence, consumer fraud and access to food, health care and housing,” the resolution says.

It also says that in 46 of California’s 58 counties, allocations to support legal services to the indigent “average less than $30 annually per poor person.” It does not cite the number for San Luis Obispo County but says the problem is greater in rural counties.

Tardiff says the lack of affordable legal aid is critical in San Luis Obispo County. There is only one California Rural Legal Assistance attorney to help the rural poor and one attorney representing the Senior Legal Project, he said, and the need is far greater.

The inequality calls into question whether the scales of justice the nation proclaims are truly balanced. The state bar association has said there is a “justice gap.”

The number for the association’s legal help hotline is 788-2099.